By Chef Heather Haxo Phillips
As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us are thinking about the sweeter things in life. Perhaps you are planning on trying a new recipe for your honey – or you have a sugar addiction you are trying to rein in. Either way, it is likely that in the new few weeks you will be surrounded by mounds of sweet things. For optimal nutrition, many of us try to limit the sugars we eat. Yet not all sugars are created equal. Some sugars make us feel terrible, other sugars make us feel great! Some sugars are empty calories, while others have significant nutritional value. How do you know what to eat? Do you know what sugars are really best for you? Which sugar is best for which use? This overview will help answer these questions.
What is Sugar? Sugar is a pure carbohydrate, a nutrient that supplies energy to the body. The chemical name for sugar is sucrose. Sucrose occurs naturally in every fruit and vegetable, as it is the major product of photosynthesis. For a long time, fruit and cane sugars were the most common sweeteners on our table. However, over the past 50 years dozens of sweeteners have been developed. Many of them are very useful for helping us to enjoy the sweet things in life without taking our blood sugar for a roller coaster ride.
Here is the scoop on CANE SUGARS:
Refined, crystallised sugars will raise blood sugar levels, and the more refined the sugar, the more it raises your blood sugar.
Rapadura is evaporated cane juice - it's also known as Sucanat. It is the least refined cane sugar available. It is just the juice extracted from the cane in a press, which has then been evaporated to dry it into granules. Rapadura has not been heated or refined, simply spun to change it into crystals. As a result, rapadura has an rough taste, heavy on the molasses but still quite sweet.
Because Rapadura is not heated, the vitamins and minerals have been retained. It also still has the natural balance of sucrose, glucose, and fructose, and contains components essential for its digestion. It is metabolized by the body more slowly than white sugar, and therefore will not affect your blood sugar levels very much at all. Rapadura is available in crystal form. But, it can also be ground (in a blender or coffee grinder) to a fine powder. Thus it is a great replacement for powdered sugar in any recipe. Rapadura can be used cup for cup as an alternative to sugar in all your raw dishes and baking.
Muscavado, Turbinado, Demarara and even 'organic raw sugar' are all refined, though not as much as white sugar. They are the product of heating the cane juice until crystals form, then spinning it in a centrifuge so the crystals are separated from the syrupy juice, but still have some juice coating them. The syrupy 'juice' (molasses) contains vitamins and minerals, and is recommended for a healthy diet, but the crystals themselves are pretty much 'empty carbs.'
Once sugar cane juice has been heated and spun, the resulting sugar (Muscavado, Turbinado, Demarara, raw) is not as healthy a product as the evaporated versions. 'Raw' sugar is not really raw - it has been cooked, and a lot of the minerals and vitamins are gone. Still, it's better than refined sugar because it has a little of the molasses still clinging to it.
White sugar is refined much further... the raw sugar is centrifuged again, then the crystals are dissolved, boiled, and crystallized again into white sugar, and any lingering goodness has completely dissapeared! All other sugars--confectioner's (also called powdered or icing sugar), castor, superfine, etc--are all refined sugar of different sizes. Brown sugar is just white sugar mixed with molasses.
Some sugar is sold as 'organic' raw sugar. Do not be fooled into thinking this means it's unrefined. It's grown with organic agricultural methods, then refined as usual... the juice (molasses) has been removed, and there's not really any goodness in it. Granulated refined sugars are pure sucrose and contain no nutrients beyond calories. They are a pure industrial product, and can hardly be considered a food. Some would say they are closer to a drug, which affects our bodies adversely and is very addictive. Not only do they not give anything beneficial to our bodies, they actually take away from the vitamins and minerals in what we are eating. People who get headaches from eating refined sugars usually find they have no problem with Rapadura.
When possible, use more natural sweeteners.
Dates: A California special, you can use dates whole, blended, chopped or made into a paste. Truly a whole raw food, dates contain vitamins A1, B1, B2, B3, B5, and C. More than 20 different amino acids make them an easily digestible food. The selenium present in dates lowers the risk of cancer and heart disease. Dates are also a great source of dietary fiber. I encourage you to venture far out into the world of dates. Our local grocery stores have basic dates, but there are dozens of varieties available that will truly shock and amaze you. We love the “Date People” for their exceptional and unique date varieties.
Honey: Not vegan but certainly natural, raw, local and unrefined sweetener. Honey is the only sweetener that has true therapeutic benefits such as being antiviral. But, it does carry a unique honey taste that isn’t always desired in many desserts.
Stevia: Stevia is an herb native to South America, though you can grow it in your Bay Area garden. It comes in a powder (the green powder it is the least refined) or a liquid (I like the liquid the best). Stevia is extremely powerful, a few drops will do. If you don't like the taste, use a little bit of stevia with another appropriate sweetener in a given dish. The bitter aspect of stevia will get lost, and you will need less of your other sweetener. Since stevia is actually not a sugar (something that turns into glucose in the body) it does not raise insulin levels at all.
Yacon syrup: Extracted from the tuberous roots of the yacon plant indigenous to the Andes Mountains. Yacon syrup is better tasting then molasses, reminiscent of caramelized sugar. And, it is low-glycemic with healthful properties. Its unique flavor goes well with beverages and specific desserts. The syrup is available at Café Gratitude, Whole Foods and other locations.
Jerusalem artichoke syrup: Another great tasting syrup that is similar in many ways to yacon syrup – similar color, uses and its own unique sweet taste. It is also very glycemic. It is rich in inulin, which makes it beneficial for the friendly flora in the intestinal tract and also is great for people with candida issues. You can buy it online or at Café Gratitude. It needs to be refrigerated after opening.
Fruit juice: Apple and orange juice are wonderfully sweet.
Agave nectar: the most common natural alternative to sugar. It is very sweet, so you don't need much. It is raw. I believe it is highly processed and should be used sparingly. It seems to be to be the "high fructose corn syrup" of the raw food world and will spike the blood sugar of most eaters – making it particularly dangerous for diabetics. I use it in recipes only when I need a "tasteless" liquid sweetener to directly replace a white sugar.
Maple syrup: Not raw, but is very simply processed and has nutritional properties. It is made by harvesting the sap from maple trees and boiling it down to a syrup. Maple syrup has a high glycemic index and is not recommended for diabetics. It is high in manganese, zinc, and potassium. Compared to agave, it has more nutrition and is more balanced in its sugars. It is a valuable replacement in many dishes because it is so easy to work with.
Palm sugar: Made from date or coconut palms, it is delicious and can be used 1 for 1 in any raw recipes. You will often find it in Asian or Indian cuisine where it is sometimes called jaggery. If buying it for home use, know that it usually comes in cakes or paddies, so it isn't always easy to work with. If you can find it in granule form consider yourself lucky (though not much is known about if it has been further processed to get it so small.)
Date sugar: A powder made of dried, ground dates. It is sweeter than sugar and fairly new on the market. It is very minimally processed, but I don't know what temperature it has gone to in order to dry the dates and grind them. It is delicious and can be used 1 for 1 in any raw recipes (Although because it is so sweet, some people prefer 2/3 date sugar to 1 cup regular sugar). It can clump and doesn't melt, making it an impractical substitute in most baked goods and beverages, but it is great for us raw foodies!
Coconut sugar: Naturally low on the glycemic index, high in potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iron and a natural source of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and C, organic coconut sugar is unprocessed, unfiltered, and unbleached natural sweetener.
Coconut nectar: The newest, hottest raw sweetener on the market today because it is a chance to move away from agave. The nectar can be found in both syrup and crystal forms. The syrup form carries its own particular taste, the crystal form is more of a “blank slate”. The nectar comes from the “sap” that exudes out of coconut blossoms when the tree is tapped. This nectar is very low glycemic and contains 17 amino acids, minerals, vitamin C, B vitamins, and has a neutral pH. It is raw, made in small batches, and minimally evaporated at low temperatures.
Lacanto: Lakanto does not affect blood sugar at all. It is a mixture of non-GMO erythritol (fermented from corn) and the super sweet extract of lua han guo fruit. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol and naturally found in grapes, pears, mushrooms, and soysauce. Lacanto is not raw, but it is a no-glycemic sweetener that can directly replace table sugar in most uses. I use it often in my tea because it dissolves well. Though it is expensive, I love Lakanto because it looks and tastes like sugar. How cool is that? You can only find it at Body Ecology
Xylitol: A sweetener that occurs naturally and is non-glycemic. However, in its supermarket form it does appear to be highly processed. Try to find a source that comes from the birch tree, rather than from Chinese corn. Xylitol is not actually a sugar, but a sugar alcohol. Bacteria in the mouth are unable to ferment xylitol, which is why it helps prevent cavities. It sweetening power is the same as sucrose.
Sweet Perfection: An all-natural sweetener that is sourced from the fiber from chicory root. It looks and tastes like sugar and has an ultra low glycemic index of almost zero. Prebiotic fibers, which Sweet Perfection is made of, have been shown to help with Candida cleansing and weight loss. You can find it at Pure Joy Planet
With all of these options out there, have fun and explore! Try different sweeteners and see how they make you feel. Steer clear of those that make you feel sluggish, tired, or anything unpleasant. Getting sugar from natural sources is best. In a world where people love sweets, it is nice to have some alternatives that actually have some nutritional value.
Learn more about how to use these sweeteners at Divine Desserts, February 12th from 9:30 – 11:30 am at Café Gratitude in San Francisco. Learn more and sign up here!
Chocolate Chip Orange Cookies
Makes 2 dozen small cookies
- 1 ½ cup almonds, soaked and dehydrated
- ½ cup walnuts, soaked and dehydrated
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoons orange zest
- 1 cup medjool dates, pitted
- ¼ cup dairy-free chocolate chips
Place ½ cup of the almonds in a food processor with the S-blade, and process into a powder. Set aside. Place the remaining 1 cup of almonds and the walnuts in the food processor and process until coarsely chopped. Add the dates, vanilla, and orange zest. Process until the mixture sticks together. Add the chocolate chips and pulse just to mix.
Form the dough into 1-inch round balls and flatten each ball slightly with the palm of your hand. Roll each cookie in the almond powder, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before serving. Stored in the refrigerator or freezer, Chocolate Chip Orange Cookies will keep for up to one month.